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Frio Suite
Artist:  Phil Keaggy & Jeff Johnson 
Label:  Ark Records
Time:  8 Tracks / 54 mins
When I opened up this package, I looked for the booklet and was a little disappointed not to find one. Half way through track three I realised how superfluous it would have been. The inside cover already included the key nine words that are all you really need to know: “Phil Keaggy Guitars & Bass, Jeff Johnson Keys, percussion & vocal.” The two have been making excellent, creative and evocative music now for decades and there is a fair chance that any music lover who has enjoyed the work of one will have come across the other and found a similar affection for his art too.

Frio Suite gets its name from a small river in the hill country of Texas. Last January, the two musicians enjoyed the annual retreat of the Chrysostom Society – a group of writers and poets – at a lodge near to it. Keaggy has put a note on his Facebook site, describing the place as, “where heaven and earth meet.” The project also involves the visual artist Kathy Hastings and poet Luci Shaw, some of whose work is shown on and in the cover.

Inasmuch as it is an impressionistic record about a river, it reminds me of Tangerine Dream’s hugely evocative Rubycon. But whereas that album took the story of the river through four parts from bubbling spring, through gentle pastures, raging canyon and then fading into the sea, this disc just deals with the gently flowing middle ground. It is such a joy that they resisted any urge to include white water sections, which would have undermined the whole effect like rainfall eating away the solidity of limestone.

It is a treat to hear both acoustic and electronic sounds – as well as the two musicians – blending so beautifully. The disc begins with crisp acoustic guitar and piano, and from the moment that the percussive elements ease in, the whole release moves fluidly through continual, delicately-shifting changes. Much of the disc is built around Johnson’s hypnotic, minimalist ticking and rippling loops, with the two veterans building layer after translucent layer of overlapping and alternating sounds, which change like a stream catches different types of sunlight throughout the day.

But Keaggy also takes his turn on the rhythmic work. In “Morning on Singing Hills” he improvises around a gentle acoustic riff that is the same rhythm as the one in Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” that gets Youssou N’Dour’s dancers dancing. Keaggy’s playing generates some fantastic sounds. In the last two minutes alone his guitar seems virtually saxophonal and then bleeds into quick flashes of some Floyd-like tones.

All of the disc is one gorgeous, cohesive whole, at its best (“Like Walking on Water” and “Between Heaven and Earth”) when there are extended loops to act as a holding riff, while either man gives the lightest improvising touch on top. The former has Keaggy reprising some Master and the Musician tones over Johnson’s tinkling sequencing, while Keaggy seems to be looped on the latter, which begins with the sparsest piano. The disc is unmistakably Johnson and Keaggy, but the intertwining of their sounds makes it something new and fresh for both of them.

The only fault I can find is that a couple of tracks fade out too quickly. That’s all.

Shaw’s poetry, reproduced on the cover, ends with the lines: 

 … the way
 music needs no words,
 being its own language. 

This wholly instrumental disc (Johnson’s vocals only extend to using his voice as a background wash) has to be heard to be enjoyed. I could say more about the dashes of fretless bass and guitar harmonics, but words about such music are like slogans plastered across a sunset. 

On first through third end-to-end plays I had tingling chills through me, right to the end, such was the exquisite beauty of the music – and does it chill! I have not heard a disc all year that quietens like this one. Quiet releases normally just don’t get the full marks, which we reviewers seem to reserve for discs that blow the ears off and shout about themselves. It’s time to put that right. We say that 5 Tocks represent music that is a “great album - a must buy.” For anyone who loves serene, ambient, richly-hued and ever-shifting instrumentals, they don’t come any better than this. It gets my third full rack of the year.

Derek Walker


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